Performing Unsettlement

  • Helene Vosters
    Unbecoming Nationalism: From Commemoration to Redress in Canada. University of Manitoba Press (purchase at
  • Vera Manuel (Editor), Michelle Coupal (Editor), Deanna Reder (Editor), Joanne Arnott (Editor) and Emalene A. Manuel (Editor)
    Honouring the Strength of Indian Women: Plays, Stories, Poetry. University of Manitoba Press (purchase at
Reviewed by Sylvie Vranckx

Honouring the Strength of Indian Women and Unbecoming Nationalism examine how performance-based genres expose the myths of Canadian innocence and peaceful settlement. Committed to truth-telling, they strive to decolonize Eurocentric binaries between public and private, mind and body, theory and practice, and research and activism. They use such different perspectives as, respectively, an edition by Indigenous scholars of works by the late Ktunaxa-Secwepemc author, educator, and drama therapist Vera Manuel and a deconstructive study of Canadian cultural memory projects by settler “artist-activist-scholar” Helene Vosters.

More than a critical edition, Honouring is foremost a tribute to Vera Manuel (Kulilu Paŧki) by friends, associates, and her sister and collaborator Emalene Manuel. As part of the First Voices, First Texts series, it aims to make available her underrated plays, stories, and poems in a way that “Indigenize[s] the editing process” and emphasizes their groundbreaking work. The daughter of Indigenous leaders and activists, Manuel authored a range of artistic works, all unpublished or out of print, depicting intergenerational colonial traumas, lateral violence, silencing, and the resilience of reconnecting with one’s own strength, culture, and relations. Her eponymous play Strength of Indian Women already testified in 1992 to the dynamics through which the cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse in the residential schools affects the next generations. Her honest, insightful works often show communities of women who reconcile with their loved ones by finally putting their pain and past actions into words, a process she calls “Story-Truth-Telling.” The scholarly articles and the introduction by Emalene Manuel contextualize her plays and public readings as parts of her Ktunaxa pedagogy and community work, as her semi-fictional characters model healing processes for her audiences. This comprehensive collection also includes her unpublished essay about the residential schools and a few photographs. While I wish more pictures of performances were included, I understand that such inclusions would violate confidentiality and that Honouring invites its readers to do their own further work. Accordingly, the volume is part of a larger project continuing Manuel’s life work, including a tribute website and perhaps a future edition of collaborative plays she co-wrote.

Unbecoming also exposes ongoing historical violence and its attempted suppression by several Canadian institutions. Anti-militaristic queer scholar Helene Vosters analyzes Canadian social memory projects like military commemorations, Canada 150 celebrations, and government-funded museums as performances, borrowing from performance studies; Canadian studies; critical race, anti-colonial, and Indigenous studies; critical memory studies; feminist historicism; and queer and gender studies. Her framework of “becoming” and “unbecoming” offers a pun, presenting a positive “becoming” image of Canada and “construct[ing] … the imagined Canadian nation,” set against the “unbecoming” brutality of settler colonialism and military nationalism and affirming the urgency of unsettling their ideology. She denounces the instrumentalization of multiculturalism, reconciliation discourse, and the peacekeeping myth to normalize and obfuscate Canada’s violence and systemic racism, to the extent that its increasing hawkishness goes largely unquestioned. For example, she analyzes the Highway of Heroes, commemorating the Canadian soldiers fallen in the Afghanistan War, as obscuring the thousands of dead Afghan civilians according to a “hierarchy of grievability.” She further examines an array of subversive counter-memorial performances, and documents her own through pictures, logs, and (self-)critical reflections as she engages in an embodied “praxis of redress”: the volume’s cover represents Flag of Tears, a Canadian flag on which workshop participants embroidered 1,181 tears to memorialize the missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and Two Spirits. Richly documented through photographs, Unbecoming also rests on an impressive theoretical framework, which can make it extremely challenging for anyone unfamiliar with the thought of Gilles Deleuze or of Judith Butler. While Vosters clearly works with diverse communities through her performances, her findings deserve to be publicized more broadly to counteract what I believe she calls “manufactured ignorance.”

Both books bespeak a profound ethical engagement as they foreground responsibility, collectiveness, and the need to grieve losses and honour survivors through creative acts of witnessing. Vosters and the editors of Honouring problematize the dilemma of publishing books while performance, decolonization, and healing are ongoing processes. Accordingly, Manuel’s plays and Unbecoming deliberately end inconclusively to urge audiences to get involved. This message is more important than ever in a post-TRC context, when Canada continues its acts of aggression at home and abroad, notably (at present) against the Wet’suwet’en people and land.

This review “Performing Unsettlement” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 26 Aug. 2020. Web.

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